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MikeCheck: Conley’s future looms as largest question Grizz face as team pivots to offseason

by Michael Wallace | Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – The ‘old man’ jokes are still funny and no longer playfully annoying.

But more than anything, to Mike Conley Jr., they’re simply inaccurate.

The wisecracks occasionally came from younger teammates with the Grizzlies, many of whom weren’t even yet in high school when Conley arrived in Memphis a dozen years ago as the fourth overall pick in the 2007 draft. At other times this season, the playful ribbing came from coaches, some of whom are former players who were once tasked with defending Conley.

“He’s old and in his 30s now,” Conley, 31, said of what he’s heard.

“This is when he’ll start slowing down,” Conley continued. “But I keep saying I feel like I’ve never been able to play like this, so I feel like new to the whole thing. And I’m excited to see where I can go as far as my individual game in an offense like this. It’s just a new challenge, a new opportunity for me and I’m just trying to make the best of it.”

Conley didn’t respond as much with verbiage as he did with revitalized production in his 12th NBA season and first back from heel surgery to fix a problem that hampered him nearly two years. When the Grizzlies’ 2019-2020 media guide is released ahead of training camp in the fall, Conley will certainly have a prominent place within its pages.

But I keep saying I feel like I’ve never been able to play like this, so I feel like new to the whole thing. And I’m excited to see where I can go as far as my individual game in an offense like this. It’s just a new challenge, a new opportunity for me and I’m just trying to make the best of it.
Mike Conley

There’s no way to chronicle the franchise’s history in Memphis without Conley’s presence as the team’s career leader in scoring, games played, assists, steals and three-pointers made. Yet despite a historic season for Conley, this isn’t about the past as Memphis ventures further into an offseason that has already included a front-office restructuring and the dismissal of coach J.B. Bickerstaff.

It’s all about the immediate future – and Conley’s role in it.

The most paramount question facing the Grizzlies coming off another disappointing season is whether they press forward with the ‘Conductor’ leading the way, or rekindle trade discussions to reshape the roster from the top? Moving Conley via trade this offseason, perhaps as soon as the June draft, would trigger a retooling of the roster around 19-year-old rookie Jaren Jackson Jr., with younger players and potential draft assets the team would demand in any deal.

Keeping Conley, who has two seasons remaining on his five-year, $153 million contract, makes it more likely the Grizzlies will be competing for a return to the postseason next year with many of the current roster components intact. It’s a group Conley guided to a 7-6 record in March, including several wins over playoff-bound teams over the final two months of the regular season.

Jonas Valanciunas and Mike Conley

Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the Memphis reacts with Mike Conley #11 of the Memphis Grizzlies during the game against the Orlando Magic on March 10, 2019 at FedExForum in Memphis, TN. Photo by Joe Murphy via Getty Images.

The Grizzlies parted with iconic center Marc Gasol at the February trade deadline in a deal with Toronto that landed center Jonas Valanciunas, guard Delon Wright and swingman C.J. Miles. With Gasol holding a player option for the final season of his contract, there was a bit more urgency to deal the three-time NBA All-Star and former league defensive player of the year.

Memphis also had extensive discussions with multiple teams on a potential Conley trade. But the front office ultimately stood pat for at least the rest of the season with the lone player left from the franchise’s ‘Core Four’ heyday that featured perennial playoff berths. If there were any questions about Conley’s value to the Grizzlies – or to potential outside suitors – he responded with a prolific stretch run.

Conley’s scoring average of 21.1 points is the highest of his career and the most by a Grizzlies player in the Memphis era of the franchise. He also tied the franchise record for most consecutive games with at least 20 points when he did so in nine straight contests. And on March 11, Conley was named NBA Western Conference Player of the Week for the first time in his career after averaging 31.3 points and shooting 55.6 percent on threes during a 3-0 run for the Grizzlies against playoff competition.

It was during that stretch when the often underrated and overlooked Conley provided some of the season’s best highlights. After missing the playoffs for a second straight season on the heels of making the postseason for seven consecutive years, there weren’t many encouraging takeaways for Memphis. Conley bouncing back from missing 70 games last season to playing in 70 this season was the biggest.

“To do it coming off probably the hardest year of my life, with the (Achilles heel) injury and surgery and not knowing how you were going to come back from it (was great),” Conley said. “When everyone tells you you’re supposed to be slowing down, you’ve just kind of defeated the odds in a sense.”

Conley raised his performance to a career level after the trade deadline, when different personnel and a faster-paced offense the offense fell more in line with Conley’s skillset. With Conley leading the way, the Grizzlies relatively flourished by going 5-2 at home in March. Conley was only slowed by ankle soreness that sidelined him as a precaution for the season's final two weeks.

Point Guard Subplots

Almost as intriguing as Conley’s breakout play down the stretch was Wright’s emergence as the backup late in the season. With three triple doubles in his final four games, Wright solidified his case as someone who should be a keeper.

But at what cost? And in what role? If Conley is dealt and a clear starter at the position isn’t part of the return package, are the Grizzlies convinced Wright is ready to take over the primary job based on his late-season surge? And if that’s the case, how does that impact the potential price tag as the 27-year-old Wright enters restricted free agency?

The Grizzlies are positioned to extend Wright a $3.6 million qualifying offer this summer, which could be the starting point for negotiations on a sweeter, longer-term deal. But if neither side is ready to lock in on agreeable numbers, Wright could return for the one-year qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Where the Grizzlies land in the May 14 draft lottery will also factor in the path the team takes at the position. Memphis, which is slotted eighth entering the lottery, has a 26 percent chance to emerge with a top-four pick.

Wright’s versatility, length at 6-foot-5, ability to finish in the paint and run an offense with authority made him the best backup point guard the Grizzlies have probably ever had for Conley. But his sub-30 three-point shooting percentage needs is to be raised at least another four-to-five percentage points, which will be an offseason priority. Wright loved his combo role with the Grizzlies, who offered him the reigns, opportunity and a confidence boost that didn't always exist in Toronto.

What's also clear is that Jevon Carter’s up-and-down rookie season - one that culminated in a career-high 32-point effort, with eight made threes, against Golden State - should leave him as the third-string option for at least another season to develop more consistency and playmaking strengths.

Bottom line

“I feel like it just added some years to my career, allowed me to be young again, allowed me to be more explosive,” Conley explained. “I’m faster. I’m quicker. Everything is up for me physically.”

That’s how Conley summed up his healthy comeback season. If the Grizzlies are committed to solidifying the roster in the short term and making a serious playoff run next season, then Grind City should still be the place for Conley. After seeing former teammate Gasol dealt to a team with a chance to compete for a championship, Conley is absolutely right for wanting the same opportunity at this stage of his career.

The Grizzlies were smart to not settle for trading Conley at the deadline for anything short of a package that would benefit the franchise for the next five or years. Patience is essential. Top contenders that miss out on key free-agent targets this summer could increase the number of potential Conley suitors. Especially those capable of absorbing the still-at-his-peak point guard into available max salary cap space.

Conley certainly increased his league-wide value after the trade deadline.

That value includes his worth to a place Conley's spent his entire career.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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